Why GM Workers in Colombia Have Sewed Their Mouths Closed
BOGOTA – Their yearlong live-in protest outside the United States embassy has yielded no tangible results. So a small collective of former disabled General Motors workers in Bogotá, Colombia, decided 15 days ago to pursue what they call their only other alternative: sewing their mouths closed and fasting until death.
“It is very indignant and humiliating to have to stay here, and to have arrived at these circumstances, but there is no other option,” said Carlos Trujillo, 32, who worked for six years at General Motor’s assembly plant in Bogotá. He says he was fired in November 2010 after he experienced work-related injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome and shoulder damage.
“We have decided to do this strike until the ultimate consequence.”
Seven former GM workers have stitched their upper and lower lips together with thick thread, while six additional former workers are fasting. All are consuming fluids.
Four core members of Asotrecol, the organization representing a total 68 injured ex-workers, launched their strike protesting what they call unjust work dismissals last August outside the U.S. embassy, as The Progressive first reported in April. The location is a symbolic nod to the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement and its accompanying Labor Action Plan.
The Labor Action Plan, announced in April 2011, is a nine-point series of policy pledges intended to better the labor rights situation in Colombia, long considered to be the most dangerous country for trade unionists.
Asotrecol members say they have received several threats since they settled into their three-room tent, both a home frequented by their families and a highly functioning office, complete with Wi-fi.
But their greatest risk now emanates from their mounting physical weakness and the lack of foreseeable resolution to their protest.
The demonstrators have had five meetings with GM representatives over the past year, according to Austin Robles, a Colombia team member of the human rights non-governmental organization Witness for Peace.
“None of them have come to any meaningful conclusions,” Robles says.
A meeting last Monday, also attended by the International Labor Organization, concluded with the GM officials walking out, Robles says.
GM-Colmotores, the Colombian branch of the Detroit-based international car manufacturing company, issued a statement this week saying that none of its workers have been fired because of health reasons. More than 95 percent of legal cases against the company have been resolved in favor of General Motors, the statement also said.
The Asotrecol workers are calling for medical compensation and for reintegration into their positions – as well as for the United States government, which holds about 500 million shares of GM, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, to directly intervene on its behalf.
The United States Embassy in Bogotá said in a statement: “We will continue to monitor the situation closely with particular concern for the health of those on a hunger-strike.”
The impact of Asotrecol’s organizing efforts over the past year has stretched far beyond the plastic walls of their tent: U.S. Representative James McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, Senator Carl Levin, Democrat from Michigan, and the AFL-CIO have all pledged their support.
And solidarity hunger strikes have taken off in Detroit, Portland, and Seattle, says Robles, of Witness for Peace.
But on Tuesday night, even as Jorge Parra, president of Asotrecol, remained judiciously attached to his laptop, checking the group’s pages on Change.org and Facebook, his eyes drooped behind his glasses. The laptop’s glow reflected the sallow tinge his skin has adopted.
Fellow protestors huddled around him, while others napped, some of their faces covered with hygienic masks to ward off illnesses they fear their weakened immune systems could bring on.
“This is a sacrifice for our families,” said Parra, who explained that all of the workers’ families are supporting the strike.
Two of the protestors say banks have foreclosed on their homes and will soon evict their families.
“We cannot get other jobs, but if we die, they [our families] can get some money.”
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